Review of Islam in NYT Book Review


January 09, 2008 at 12:42 pm

The January 6, 2008 edition of the New York Times Book Review was devoted to “Islam,” as the header for the edition boldly proclaims. The edition aims to highlight some of the most relevant historical, literary, political and theological issues informing contemporary discourse around the topic of Islam, as it is found in recent literature. The effort to shed light on such an important subject is laudable. What follows are my comments on the various articles and essays. They follow the order presented in the Book Review.

1. This issue of the Book Review begins with Tariq Ramadan’s excellent essay Reading the Koran. Ramadan is able to capture in a concise essay both the simplicity and the nuanced complexity of the Koran (Qur’an). Its simplicity is rooted in its ability to singularly address the believing heart. At this level the Qur’an is simple and universally accessible. Each person finds in its message, filtered through the prism of his or her personal experiences, knowledge, joy, pain, triumphs and setbacks, a distinct intimacy. At this level, the message requires “no intermediary.” This is the basis of what Ramadan refers to as the dialogue that exists between the Qur’an and its reader. Ramadan beautifully captures the spirit of that dialogue.

However, the Qur’an is also nuanced and its message can be quite complex at another level, a more complex one that seeks to accurately understand the legal, social, and moral implications of the message. Here, the challenge, Ramadan informs us, is “to derive the Islamic prescriptions that govern matters of faith, of religious practice, and of its fundamental precepts.” Here literalism and dogma do not take one very far, although they inform much of the contemporary polemics surrounding discussions of the Qur’anic messages in the pontification of both Muslims and non-Muslims.

As Ramadan mentions, this is a domain that requires the specialized methodological tools of the Qur’anic scholar. It is those tools that allow for the productive application of reason to the divine text. That such an application is possible is illustrated throughout the long history of Islam, and captured in the rich literate we have inherited from the great Qur’anic exegetes. These methodological tools, would include a deep knowledge of the poetry and language of the Arabs, grammar, rhetoric, logic, knowledge of the Meccan and Medinan verses (signs) of the Qur’an, and other sciences that Ramadan does not mention.

Possession of those tools is augmented by the possession of a final, critical one that Ramadan does expound on—a deep spirituality that creates an inseparable fusion between the heart and the mind. It is this fusion that really opens the door to a faithful and deep understanding of the guidance contained in the Qur’an. In Ramadan’s words, “Reason opens the Book and reads it—but it does so in the company of the heart, of spirituality.”

In our day the need for a deeper reading of the Qur’an has perhaps never been greater, for the vast difference between the society that witnessed the original revelation of the text and the time we live in has never been greater. Hence, there is a tremendous need for a harmonizing between the text and our context, a harmonization that is impossible as long as there is not a deep harmony between the heart and the mind. Ramadan makes this point quite emphatically. If we Muslims are able to effect a reconciliation between our hearts, which are oftentimes blinded by the sometimes luminous, sometimes dark glare of the modern condition, and our minds, which are oftentimes numbed by the seductive illusion of certitude, then perhaps we can help to effect a reconciliation between not only the text of the Qur’an and the context we endeavor to apply its guidance in, but also between the various people vying for preeminence, or simply trying to survive in an increasingly interconnected world.

2. Irshad Manji’s review of John Kelsey’s, Arguing The Just War in Islam, is plagued by two of the tendencies that characterize her own works—namely, a strong ideological bias and the lack of a deep understanding of Islamic Law, exegesis, and methodology. Both of these tendencies work to undermine the seriousness of her scholarship and the veracity of her conclusions.

An example of the former is illustrated by her comment on Kelsay’s statement that in the light of classical Islamic legal reasoning civilian deaths may be justifiable “when an enemy’s military resources are deployed in the midst of a civilian population. …Soldiers whose actions take place under such conditions are excused from the guilt associated with unjust killing.” Manji comments, “That ruling would let Israeli Defense Forces of the hook for collateral damage in their 2006 war in Lebanon, since Hizbollah deliberately operated in residential Beirut.” Manji’s defense of the IDF would be more credible, but no more acceptable, if the destruction caused by the IDF during the war was restricted to the slums of southern Beirut. However, it does little to excuse the killing of hundreds of Lebanese civilians in areas where there was no Hizbollah presence, the wanton destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and the dumping of hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs on Lebanese fields and arable farmland. Are these to be glibly dismissed as forms of collateral damage that Muslims have no moral or theological authority to question because of a perceived loophole in classical Islamic strategic thinking?

The latter tendency is illustrated by her concluding remarks surrounding the Qur’anic verse that “tells believers that slaying an innocent is like slaying all of mankind unless it is done to punish villainy.” She goes on the mention the incumbency of “reform-minded Muslims” reinterpreting this verse. She then concludes that the nature of that reinterpretation “could well be the next chapter in reclaiming Shariah reasoning and the richness of Islam itself.” To reduce the reform of Islamic legal thought to the reinterpretation of a single verse, particularly the one is question is a highly untenable proposition.

Although Kelsay’s work is probably quite insightful, it is indicative of a genre of writing about Islam that is highly problematic. That literature seeks to explain developments in the Islamic world based on easily sensationalized cultural variables that pale in the face of the analytical strength of other more nuanced ones. In this case the cultural variable is religion. Manji quotes Kelsay as saying, “Those who wish to argue that Islam has nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11 or the tactics of Iraqi ‘insurgents’ will find no comfort here…”

The implicit assumption underlying this statement is that if we can understand Islam, specifically its legal reasoning, then we can understand why 9/11 occurred or why the Iraqi insurgents choose the tactics they do. I would argue that Islamic legal reasoning has little to do with understanding either. If suicide terrorism is the issue to be explained then Islam would give us little insight into what motivated the Tamil Tigers when they were engaging in arguably the prototypical—and to date the most successful—suicide terror campaign in history. If car-bombing is the tactic to be explained then Islam will do little to explain the ruthless campaigns of the Zionist Stern Gang in Palestine during the 1940s, or the highly effective campaign of the Viet Cong and their supporters during the American campaign in Viet Nam during the 1960s. How does Islam inform the tactics of contemporary Islamic radicals who employ such methods in ways that differ fundamentally from the two groups mentioned above? As Robert Pape demonstrates in the case of suicide bombings it would be far more productive to consider other variables.

If any one thinks that the application of “premodern precedents” goes further in explaining contemporary acts of violence in the Muslim world than globalization, foreign occupation, economic marginalization, inadequate education, and a host of other factors, then that misunderstanding will not only inform flawed policies for dealing with the current crisis, it will also help to perpetuate the type of ignorance that lends public support to those policies.

It is interesting the Book Review did not choose to highlight a publication that deals with the types of explanations I mention above. Pape’s, Dying to Win, Michael Scheuer’s, Imperial Hubris, and Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam are examples of works that could have been mentioned in this regard. This is not to argue that Kelsay’s thesis has no validity. However, its true relevance is highly questionable.

3. Jeffrey Goldberg’s, Seeds of Hate, is a review of Matthias Kuntzel’s, Jihad and Jew Hatred: Islamism, Nazism, and the Roots of 9/11. Goldberg echoes Kuntzel is seeing the poorly packaged nonsense that is at the basis of Jew-hatred that does exist in the Muslim world as “scandalously ubiquitous.” The Muslim world is quite expansive, and it would be a stretch of the imagination to think that the sort of anti-Jewish hatred that appears in pamphlets littering some of the bookstores of the Arab heartland of Islam is widespread in places like Muslim West Africa, the Muslim nations of Central Asia, or the Southern Philippines. Even Goldberg realizes that we are not talking about a ubiquitous phenomenon and more accurately states at the end of his article, “Still Kuntzel is right to state that we are witnessing a terrible explosion of anti-Jewish hatred in the Middle East…”

The dubious nature of Kuntzel’s claim along with an indication of the nature of the scholarship supporting it is found his allegation that (in Goldberg’s words) “two Muslim leaders in particular willingly and knowingly carried Nazi ideology directly to the Muslim masses.” These two leaders are the Palestinian, Amin al-Husseini, and the founder of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna. During his lifetime, to say nothing of today, it would be difficult to find a Muslim outside of Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia who had even heard of Amin al-Husseini. Although Hasan al-Banna’s ideas would be indirectly influential in the programs of some Islamic organizations, such the Jamaati Islami of India and Pakistan, that influence was largely confined to a few countries outside of the Arab heartland of Islam, and did not extend beyond the Western-educated elite that formed the backbone of such movements. The masses in those lands were always attached to more traditional types of Islamic organizations such as the Sufi brotherhoods.

In mentioning the role of Hasan al-Banna in transferring those hideous ideas from their European birthplace to the Muslim world, Kuntzel gives too much weight to a yet to be resurgent Islam. The role of Arab nationalism, and nationalist thinkers such as Sati al-Husri during the 1930s and 1940s in that transferal is far more significant. Those were the heady days of the Arab nationalist revolution, and nationalist thinkers such as al-Husri, Michel Aflaq and others saw far more to be learned from the mass mobilization techniques, the manipulation of nationalist symbols, and the racist propaganda of Mussolini and Hitler than Islamic figures like al-Banna ever did.

Kuntzel’s use of the word “Jihad” in his title is also significant. The juxtaposition of “Jihad” and “Jew-Hatred” seems to suggest that somehow Jew-hatred has something to do with motivating the actions of 21st Century jihadists. Such a linkage would be very difficult to prove. Most analysts of contemporary jihad movements note the almost total neglect both Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have given to the Palestinian problem. When it is mentioned by them or their cohorts, it is usually done so in a language that bespeaks of tokenism. Why then use such language? I would argue that it is an emotive way of obscuring the real issues pushing some Muslims to violence.

The same could be said by the inclusion of the phrase, “…and the Roots of 9/11,” in the subtitle. Even those who accept the woefully inadequate official version of the events of that day seldom if ever mention the hatred of Jews as being one of the factors motivating those implicated in carrying out the attacks. It is again curious that Kuntzel would make such a linkage.

Kuntzel does point to a real problem. However, he appears to be overly simplistic in his analysis of its origins, and by implication its solution. To his credit, Goldberg points out this oversimplification. As he implies, the “excess and cruelty” of Israel has to be seen as a factor in the emergence of virulent Jew-hatred in parts of the Muslim world. That does not excuse it. However, it is certainly a factor in explaining it.

4. Fouad Ajami’s essay dealing with Sam Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis is his acknowledgement that Huntington was right all along. It took the events of 9/11 to lead Ajami to see the light. As Ajami states, “Those 19 young Arabs who struck America on 9/11 were to give Huntington more of history’s compliance than he ever could have imagined.” He further observes that those radicals and their ilk had “overwhelmed the order of their homelands…”

All of this strikes me as strange. As far as I can see it is authoritarian business as usual in all of the Muslim countries that have witnessed the threat of radical Islam. Egypt dutifully crushed Ayman Zawahiri and his minions, forcing them to seek refuge in the caves of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has survived the challenge of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda without even a minor disruption in the flow of oil. Even in Pakistan, a land where the radical Muslim youth are seen as most menacing, far from being overwhelmed, President Musharraf, along with the military and feudal land-owing elites he serves as a front for are firmly in charge. No informed observer would believe otherwise. Musharraf has been able to skillfully use various Islamic groups to give the impression of an exaggerated Islamic threat to his western backers; and of course, he is the only one capable of dealing with that threat.

In the most secular of Muslim countries, Tunisia, the vanquished Islamic movement, and its exiled leader, Rashid al-Ghanoushi, show little signs of a comeback. Even in Turkey, where Ajami places an exaggerated emphasis on the Islamists roots of the current ruling party, it is clear that the politicians, regardless of their Islamist origins, tow the army’s line and have been forced to engage in many embarrassing compromises to prevent the direct intervention of the avowedly secular military into the political arena. In the Central Asian Muslim republics, brutal repression prevents the emergence of even a peaceful Islamic movement.

Ajami’s effort to lend credence to Huntington’s thesis leads to an incredible lack of analytical depth. He cites for example the fact that the percentage of the world’s population under the direct political control of the west has fallen from 40 percent in 1900 to 15 percent in 1990, whereas Islam’s share has risen from 4 percent in 1900 to 13 percent in 1990. Even if we discard the fact that most of the growth in the Islamic realm can be attributed to disproportionately high population growth rates, Ajami’s failure to grasp the nature of neo-colonization is telling. The premise of the new colonization is that it no longer requires expensive and politically-damaging direct control. The details of the working of new relationships of domination and control are well known, and their impact on the developing world is well documented.

Ajami’s analysis also ignores the economic realities of the current global system. If we were to look at the economic domination of the former colonial powers we would surely find that the forms of economic dependency in the former colonies, and wealth sharing patterns between them and their old vassals has actually worsened. The nature of globalization has rendered whole sectors of the population of many developing countries structurally unemployed or unemployable, even in places like India where a relative handful of people have benefited by the “outsourcing” of IT services.

To make his case Ajami must overlook other critical developments, such as a pervasive western-orchestrated globalization that is just as severe in the Muslim world as it is elsewhere. The young Arabs and Muslims Ajami sees as the “shock-troops of a new radicalism” are wearing blue jeans, blazers and communicating via cell phones and the internet. Their frustration in many instances is bred by the lack of control they have over their life chances because of the vagaries of the global economy.

9/11 notwithstanding, Huntington’s clash of civilizations is bad history and it is bad social science. From a historical perspective it would be difficult to argue that Islam and Christianity are two distinct civilizations. They both spring from common roots and are integrated by the dynamics that have forged the peoples of the Mediterranean region into an integrated if oftentimes conflicting whole. The diet, language, dress, and social mores of a Palestinian Christian differ little form those of a Palestinian Muslim. To posit that religion alone somehow casts them into divergent civilizations, civilizations defined by culture no less, is not a sound proposition. If somehow European Christians are distinct from their Latin American or Middle Eastern brethren, something that Huntington seems to suggest, then those differences likely have nothing to do with religion.

The clash of civilization thesis is based on many conclusions that do not stand up to facts. For example, Huntington claims that sharing a common civilization will mitigate conflicts that do occur. Yet the two world wars, fought primarily between the Christians of Europe were the bloodiest and most costly conflicts in history. More recently in the Muslim world the Iran-Iraq War, which raged from 1980 until 1988, leading to the deaths of well over one million combatants, was the bloodiest war in the history of the region despite the fact that both sides were Muslim. Sharing a common “culture” was no mitigating factor in these conflagrations.

Furthermore, the neat fault lines Huntington draws up are not so clear on the ground. Was the 1991 Gulf War an example of a clash of civilizations? The Christian American and Brits teamed up with the Muslim Saudis and Kuwaitis to destroy Muslim Iraq. How do we draw the fault lines in looking at that conflict?

Ajami grudgingly concedes, “I still harbor doubts about whether the radical Islamists knocking at the gates of Europe, or assaulting it from within, are bearers of a whole civilization.” I can assure Mr. Ajami that they are not even the bearers of a partial civilization. As Olivier Roy points out they are the children of globalization. Furthermore, unlike the Ottoman Turks when they twice besieged Vienna, they are not knocking at the gates of Europe, and unless some European country grants them a visa they can get no where near the estate.

5. William Dalrymple’s review of Ghalib Lakhnawi and Abdullah Bilgrami’s The Adventure of Amir Hamza is a welcome addition the Book Review’s collection. Such works go a lot further than any number of speeches or educational initiatives to humanize the Muslim world. With so much attention given to the bloody things that lead in the headlines of the coverage given by the western media to the Muslim world, it is refreshing to read about a great work of literature. Dalrymple’s concise overview of the development of this genre of writing is lucid and insightful.

His review is also saddening, for as he points out, this art form, along with virtually of all the classical Islamic arts—with the notable exception of calligraphy—are almost dead. In this context, Dalrymple issues a subtle challenge to Muslims when he states, “If the Sackler’s “Hamzanama” exhibition was the first time a Western audience has been exposed to the Hamza story, it also served as a wake-up call to Urdu and Persian scholars. It quickly emerged that this epic, said to be the longest single romance cycle in the world, has been almost forgotten.” The wake-up call Dalrymple mentions extends far beyond scholars of Persian and Urdu. It is one that should be heeded by all Muslims.

Being a viable and competitive nation includes far more than the ability to produce doctors and engineers, the primary professions most Muslim parents direct their children towards. Without relevant and engaged scholars in the humanities and social sciences, it is difficult to see how the type of Islamic world expressed in the pages of the Hamza tales will be recaptured. That world is a world rooted in the realities that are shaped by real people engaging the world on human terms. It is a world capable of producing great art and literature, a world of subtleties and nuances, a world of heroes and heroines.

A true revival of Islamic civilization does not require a return to the prophetic epoch, nor does it require starting from scratch in the face of the novel contingencies presented by the modern and now post-modern conditions. It will require a deep appreciation of the tradition that emerged from the struggle of Muslims to apply our religion in the world as much as it will require a rededication to the underlying piety that drove that engagement. It will also require the creative imagination illustrated by the many minds that unwittingly collaborated over long centuries to produce The Adventures of Amir Hamza, as well as the creative assimilative genius that produced the distinctive Mughal art form displayed in the Hamzanama.

It is interesting, as Dalrymle points out, that The Adventures of Amir Hamza begins near Bagdad and unfolds in an area encompassing most of the Middle East that has become synonomous with conflict and strife. Bringing about a new day in that region will hinge in large part on how we in the West envision it. Hopefully works like The Adventures of Amir Hamza will help us to view the region and its wonderful people in a more human light.

6. Beyond the Burka, Lorraine Adams essay on the state of Muslim women in western literature is a call for the inclusion of a wider range of voices in literature about Muslim women currently available in the West. Adams points to the highly politicized nature of what gets translated, published, and by implication, effectively marketed. She mentions the case of Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel. Because Ali’s work, whose truthfulness is dubious, reinforces all of the stereotypes associated with the type of Islam advocated by radical Islamists, today’s enemy of choice, it is a best seller and its author fitting for a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute.

Adams then proceeds to mention the likes of Nawal El Saadawi, the longtime Egyptian feminist scholar and activist, whose scholarship, integrity, and career accomplishments dwarfs those of Hirsi Ali, but whose ambivalence towards the American imperial project has relegated her works—those which have been translated into English—to the back shelves of obscure British bookstores.

Adams also demonstrates the power of the template by a brief examination of the work of the Iranian émigré Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran. The success of that work led to a slew of similar works by Iranian women. Collectively, those works serve to reinforce the stereotypical views most Americans have of the Islamic Republic, but do little to add understanding of the highly complex, highly nuanced Iranian social and political systems. They also unwittingly deny space for other Iranian female voices that are telling different types of stories. This is a dangerous trend in light of the fact that the American public will probably soon be called on to accept some form of military action against Iran. In the absence of understanding, blood unfortunately becomes a very powerful argument.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of Adams essay, one that is almost universal when Western women write about Muslim societies, is her failure to mention any works by women who readily and proudly identify themselves as practicing Muslims. She does acknowledge that “moderate Muslims, practicing but tolerant; and radical fundamentalists…” exist. However, her overview of the literature being produced by the women of the Muslim world gives no indication of any literary output from this quarter. It would certainly be instructive and enriching to find out what are the factors motivating such women to take the stands that have taken, and what is their view of the social reality some consider so insidious and demeaning to their gender.

Herein is a challenge for practicing Muslim women in the West, many of whom are fluent in both English and one of the major Muslim languages. Through original works and through translation let your stories and the stories of your sisters be known. It is only through the telling of such stories that the fullness, complexity, and richness of the Muslim world will come to be known. Only then will we begin to approach the fulfillment of the vision of Dedi Felman, who Adams quotes as saying, “We are asking people to recognize the Other not for what they want it to be or anticipate it to be, but for what it is.” After all is said and done such an attitude is absolutely indispensable for mutual understanding.

End of Part One